I’ve been thinking about death. Why?
Could it be because US Covid deaths are closing in on three quarters of a million lives? Could it be because I’m 74 years old, and I’ve already lived the bulk of my life? Could it be that, just this week, I’ve had to write condolence notes to two friends? Could it be because my grandsons attend in-person school but are too young to be vaccinated?
Could it be because this is what human beings have been thinking about since we became human?
Luckily for you, Dear Reader, this is not a multiple-choice test. The answer is ALL OF THE ABOVE.
Also, I’ve just read George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker prize in 2017.
The Bardo, a term from Tibetan Buddhism, is what Saunders calls what happens to someone immediately after death. The Lincoln who is in the Bardo is not Abe, though he is the president at this time. It is his eleven-year-old son Willie who has just died.
The Bardo is not like Dante’s afterlife of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory where everyone knows their station. The Bardo is transitional. But, a transition to what? The Bardo inhabitants do not know and are fearful.
Moreover, existence in the Bardo is unhappy and full of frustration – unexplained bad things happen.
Death has not made the inhabitants of the Bardo any smarter, kinder or more insightful than when they were alive. They are lustful. They are greedy. They are racist. Describing human self-absorption is one of Saunders’s fortes. This was the theme in a previous Saunders book I reviewed, a picture book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.
The Bardo residents are hilariously self-absorbed. Each one’s “body” reflects their pre-occupation in life. Mr. Bevins, who killed himself because of forbidden lust for men, has many eyes, noses and hands. At one point, his friend says, “Several of Mr. Bevins’s many eyes, I noted, were rolling.”
Mr. Vollman was struck by a beam while anticipating sex with his wife. He is burdened with a swollen “member” which can grow to gigantic proportions. (I am curious to see how the movie version deals with this.)
The old hands know that conditions in the Bardo are even worse for young ones. So, to help Willie move on, they actually cooperate. But they need Abe’s help.
No one has written about death, and the dead, quite like this. Books about death have focused on the fearful or resolute anticipation of death, the process of dying, or the attempts of the living to cope after someone’s died. This is a rare book in which the action happens among the dead themselves, much as they try to communicate with the living.
The format of the book, too, is unusual. The first time I read it, I sped through it thinking that the many disembodied voices, often not speaking full sentences, would be explained further down the road. Later, I realized that it is one more way for the author to show how different, how uncertain, a space the Bardo is.
The action in the Bardo is interspersed by chapters about the living Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln. Also, in an unusual format. Saunders pieces together quotes from contemporary authors, newspapers, and diaries to portray the couple’s grief, as well as Abe’s wartime duties.
Mary Todd Lincoln was beyond distraught. According to a White House maid, she kept asking, “Where was her boy? … Couldn’t someone find him, bring him to her at once?”
The cemetery watchman’s log book noted that Abe Lincoln returned to the cemetery the night of the funeral to spend time with his son’s body. The man described Lincoln’s eyes as “so needful.”
Lincoln recognized that his own incalculable grief was multiplied thousands-fold in the families of those killed – and who would be killed – in the war he was conducting. The responsibility was crushing. Saunders puts these thoughts in Lincoln’s head: “He [Willie] is just one. And the weight of it about killed me. Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys.”
The last third of Lincoln in the Bardo is a page-turner! Will the characters in the Bardo “save” Willie? Will they save themselves? How will Abe Lincoln find new resolve? I could feel my heart pounding.
How does one think about one’s own death? I try to imagine my non-existence, but it never lasts. I am always the star of my own show.
Even though we’ll all get a turn, grieving a loved one’s death seems utterly personal. Recently, a number of my friends have lost life partners. Some do more. Some do less. Some join grief groups. Some travel. Some stay home. I cannot know the specifics of their suffering.
My dad died ten years ago. He was ninety years old. He had been ravaged by disability and chronic diseases before he died. He came to me in a dream last night.
I was sitting at a bar chatting with this guy, who I didn’t particularly care for. That guy left. I looked down and when I looked up again, my dad was sitting there. He was in full health, maybe in his fifties. He was wearing his favorite red vest. And he had a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He made a comment – something political – that he knew I couldn’t entirely agree with.
I wish I could remember what he said, but as in dreams, the content goes poof. But the feeling has stayed. I was so happy to see him. Absolutely delighted. Even now, my day is brighter.
For me, dreams and writing my memories are ways to connect with those who are gone, inadequate as those things are. In its marvelous mixture of pathos and humor, Lincoln in the Bardo opened a side door of remembrance for me.
I can’t quite explain why. Like my encounter with my dad, what stayed with me after reading the book are the feelings. In this case, it is an expansiveness of the heart.
Tell me: Are you anticipating an afterlife?